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As towns around Quabbin Reservoir face challenges, state lawmakers propose more financial help

In the early 1900s, four western Massachusetts towns disappeared from the map. They were flooded to build the Quabbin Reservoir, which now provides drinking water mostly to Boston and dozens of surrounding communities.

But those towns closest to the Quabbin don't have access to the water supply. And several are now experiencing significant water quality issues.

On a recent morning, two preschoolers filled glasses from a water dispenser in the cafeteria at the Swift River School in New Salem.

Life has been easier lately at the school. A new filtration system was installed after PFAS — also called forever chemicals — were discovered in the water in 2020 at more than double the state limit.

"This has been an ongoing headache for a long time," principal Kelley Sullivan said. "We eventually brought in bottled water for students and staff, and to cook with. We shut down all of our bubblers, and we had to put up signs that said, 'Do not drink the water.'"

Sullivan said the district had to spend roughly $45,000 on bottled water, but some parents were still nervous.

"We had families that didn't want children drinking water," she said. "So then they couldn't eat food that they thought might be prepared with the school's water. But we were using bottled water all the time, and we offer free lunch to everybody so that was a huge issue."

Elena Palladino, author of "Lost Towns of the Swift River Valley," at her home in Ware, Massachusetts.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Elena Palladino, author of "Lost Towns of the Swift River Valley," at her home in Ware, Massachusetts.

Parents in Boston-area communities like Lexington, Somerville and Marblehead don’t have to worry about PFAS in the water at their children's schools. It comes from the Quabbin Reservoir, which sits less than three miles away from the Swift River School.

The Quabbin was created in the 1930s and required 2,500 residents in four towns — Dana, Greenwich, Enfield, and Prescott — to give up their homes and businesses.

Author Elena Palladino recently wrote a book about it, "Lost Towns of the Swift River Valley." In it, she describes a farewell ball held in April of 1938.

"It took place on the night that the towns were officially disincorporated," she said. "It was held in Enfield, but people from all over the valley attended, and it was sort of a funeral for the towns. It was the night they passed into history."

In her book, Palladino includes a description written by someone who was at the party.

"Muffled sobs could be heard from all parts of the hall, and many hardened men were noted making hurried grasps for their handkerchiefs. Children broke into tears as all realized that this was the last gathering of its kind in Enfield, and, for that matter, about the last affair of any kind to take place in the community."

Palladino said what happened should not be forgotten.

Brian Rucki, water foreman in Ware, Massachusetts, stands outside the town's pump house.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Brian Rucki, water foreman in Ware, Massachusetts, stands outside the town's pump house.

"I think it's really important that everyone knows where their water comes from," she said. "And for Boston in particular, who really enjoys this pristine water supply [and] doesn't ever have to worry about the water quality, that they understand what was sacrificed by people in another part of the state so that they could enjoy that."

Water quality is on the minds of residents where Palladino lives — the town of Ware, which borders the Quabbin to the south.

"They're saying that the water is rust colored or brown," said Geoff McAlmond, who leads Ware's Department of Public Works. "I just recently had a call and [the person said the water] stains their toilets. It stains their dishwashers, laundry. It's really a problem."

The water is safe to drink, he said, but difficult to live with.

At the town’s pump house, water foreman Brian Rucki pointed to a historic marker above the front door.

"[The year of] 1886, when the building was built," Rucki said. "You got what's called a cistern over there. The wells pump from over here into a cistern."

Ware is one of only two communities in Massachusetts, according to the state, that still use a cistern, which is a brick-lined tank with a dirt floor. The other community is Greenfield.

The cistern near the Ware, Massachsetts, pump house.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
The cistern near the Ware, Massachsetts, pump house.


McAlmond said the system has been maintained, but "has aged out, and a lot of the water lines have exceeded their useful life."

Ware explored privatizing its water system last year, but it didn’t happen. Building a filtration plant would cost around $16 million, a price tag that’s risen dramatically in recent years. Residents are expected to vote this spring on whether to make improvements to the water system.

Ware has explored connecting to the Quabbin, which is only three miles from the cistern. Several western Massachusetts communities did so in the late 1940s and early 1950s — Chicopee, Wilbraham and South Hadley. But for Ware, connecting to the reservoir now would be far more expensive than building a filtration plant.

Whatever solution Ware settles on, state Sen. Jo Comerford, who represents towns around the Quabbin, said they need and deserve more financial help.

Massachusetts state Sen. Joanne Comerford, D-Northampton.
Sam Doran
/
State House News Service
Massachusetts state Sen. Joanne Comerford, D-Northampton.

"They struggle so significantly to have an economic base that's worth anything to pay for their teachers, to pay for first responders," she said. "And we can trace it all back to this decision to disrupt — significantly disrupt — life in this region in order that eastern Massachusetts could thrive."

In addition to eliminating four towns for the reservoir, the state took property from eight other communities to protect 75,000 acres around the reservoir. That land is now mainly forests and wetlands that help produce the high-quality water that comes out of faucets in eastern Massachusetts.

The Quabbin towns receive payments in lieu of taxes — also known as PILOTs — to partially compensate for lost revenue from land they are not allowed to develop.

"I want us, as a commonwealth, to understand the price that the four towns paid, that the watershed communities continue to have to bear, and I want us to tell the truth about what it costs to maintain this watershed system," Comerford said.

Comerford has cosponsored a bill to create a new trust fund to generate $3.5 million a year for the watershed towns. It would be funded by a five-cent fee for every thousand gallons of water that leaves the Quabbin.

The proposal would also increase the PILOT payments, so they're assessed on the land underwater. Right now, they're only paid on the surrounding land.

That could be huge for New Salem, said Kathy Neal, the town coordinator.

"Because the tax base is mostly residential, it is sometimes a struggle because you're not getting taxes in from ... a commercial base which would help or industrial," she said.

Neal said the town also has an aging population, some of whom are on fixed incomes, making tax increases difficult.

Sue Cloutier, chair of the New Salem, Massachusetts, Board of Selectmen, outside a municipal office building.
Alden Bourne
/
NEPM
Sue Cloutier, chair of the New Salem, Massachusetts, Board of Selectmen, outside a municipal office building.

Sue Cloutier, who chairs New Salem's Board of Selectmen, said towns around the reservoir need more assistance. She moved to New Salem from Wellesley in 1980.

"I think when you think of us as a commonwealth, we're sharing the wealth," she said. "A lot of the benefits that the people in the cities and towns that depend on the water from the reservoir and the rural community that supports that clean water, we need more help. And so, to maintain the commonwealth, monies need to be shared more appropriately with these rural towns that are struggling."

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which oversees the reservoir, has recently explored the possibility of connecting more communities to the water source — north, south and west of Boston.

After hearing from western Massachusetts lawmakers, the agency also agreed to study what it would take to connect cities and towns closer to the source, including those right next to the Quabbin.

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education and politics.